A rendering of the proposed visitor center at the United States Air Force Academy.
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A rendering of the proposed visitor center at the United States Air Force Academy.

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Tuesday was one small step for the country, one giant leap for Colorado Springs.

By a 5-3 vote, the Colorado Spring City Council created an urban renewal area for the proposed visitors center of the United States Air Force Academy — one of the country’s top institutions of higher education.

The decision is an act of service to the country, said retired Lt. Gen. Michael Gould, former superintendent of the academy. Gould said the project will inspire young men and women to join the Air Force.

Cultural and economic benefits to the entire community are obvious. The center will make the academy more accessible to Colorado residents and visitors from around the globe. It will create primary employment funded by out-of-state money.

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The new URA, west of Interstate 25 along North Gate Boulevard and adjacent to the Santa Fe Trail, will include hotels and retail establishments. New taxes generated by voluntary business transactions will fund the visitors center, thanks in large part to Tuesday’s URA designation.

Of note, the limited opposition had nothing to do with typical urban renewal concerns. The project includes no condemnation of private property or other proposed acts of hostile land acquisition. It will not force overnight gentrification of established neighborhoods residents would like to preserve.

This special tax district will transform vacant land into economically productive land, without imposing substantial harm to anyone.

Opponents mostly offered an old semantic concern about declaring an undeveloped area “blighted.”

Urban renewal designations in Colorado routinely involve the awkward declaration of vacant lots and prairies as “blight.” The term evokes visions of dilapidated buildings and rat-infested warehouse districts. In fact, urban renewal areas were invented as a means of renewing “slums” with tax incentives to fund redevelopment.

Instead of debating the connotations and denotations of “blight” each time we go through this process, perhaps the legislature should take this pretense out of the law. All over Colorado, local governments create URAs to fund projects that grow their economies with new taxable transactions — with or without traditional “blight” conditions. Maybe the language of the law should better align with the practice, which courts have upheld.

Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who voted against the URA, raised a concern no one should dismiss. She represents southeast Colorado Springs, which could use urban renewal more than any other section of town. She pointed out the Council has never created a URA in her district.

“Developers don’t want to come there,” Avila said.

True. It is a problem she and other council members had better resolve. The city should find a way to bring jobs and economic growth to the southeast, and the right URA proposal might help. With or without a URA, developers invest only in projects that make economic sense. Our southeast neighborhoods have extraordinary potential, which we must discover and leverage to the benefit of all.

Though Avila is wise to raise this concern, it has nothing to do with the visitors center. That academy project, and the URA, will do nothing to harm Avila’s district. If anything, they will help her constituents by contributing to the economy of the entire community. The academy’s gain does not come at a loss to any other part of town.

The Council’s decision Wednesday is a win for the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, the Pikes Peak region and all of Colorado. Job well done!

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